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English in the Amazon

Guide and cook, Pascual prepares plantains for lunch. The ornamentation he wears on his chest are pretty common for the men. Some families may offer to sell them.

Created by Noah Benson

There are few places left on Earth more remote than the Amazon Jungle, and right now it’s in danger of disappearing. International oil companies are trying to buy off a third of the rainforest from the Ecuadorian government. So far the government is open to the idea and sees no problem with relocating the indigenous tribes that live there, or the loss of jungle that is home to thousands of species of animals, plants and insects.

There is not a lot that someone who doesn’t live in Ecuador can do about the political situation, but something I was able to do to help was to assist local schools in teaching English to students from the indigenous Achuar tribe. I was also able to participate in community-lead ecotourism projects. Learning English and utilizing ecotourism serves as a two edged sword for the Achuar tribe. Knowing English will give them a larger voice in their government, as English is a respected language. Having a comprehensive understanding of ecotourism and how it can benefit their community and habitats will pave the way for a promising future. It also has the potential to prove to the government that Amazon ecotourism is a lucrative attraction for international travelers.

This snake was found in a fallen palm tree during a hike, and caused a bit of fright among us non-indigenous until our guide confirmed it was not dangerous.

What Should You Expect?

A traveler that takes on this adventure can expect a totally unique experience, learning

about how the indigenous people of Ecuador have been living for centuries. The Achuar people live in extreme isolation. The only contact they have with the world outside the jungle is a radio check-in twice a day, and a supply plane that sometimes brings things that can’t be found in the jungle such as oil, pots, pans and salt. There is clean drinking water, as they have a water well built by Compassion International, but it is recommended that travelers bring filters, as the solar panel used to pump the water does not always get adequate sunlight. The tribesmen are excited to share their way of life and will take visitors fishing, teach them how to build beds and huts, take them on hikes through the jungle, and tell them what different plants are used for.

I was invited to help teach English three days a week for two and a half hours per day.

The age of the students varied depending on what the primary teacher wanted done on any given day, but students were between 6 and 18 years old. The older students had very basic English skills and could communicate in Spanish, but were very shy, and it took some work to get them to open up and respond to visitors. The younger groups were not at all shy, but were very wild and had a hard time paying attention to English lessons. Lots of patience was required to work with both groups.

This is the standard cooking fire. Moving the logs closer makes it hotter, moving them apart makes it cooler, and allows them to leave the embers without risk of burning anything down. The flame can be coaxed back to life quickly, with some twigs and leaves.

Food

The diet consisted mostly of boiled plantains, yucca and rice with the occasional fish, and possibly tapir or monkey. Be warned though, the taste of boiled plantains and yucca gets old fast. It would be a good idea to bring in oil, seasonings, or even eggs.

Chicha is also something travelers will be invited to drink. Chicha is made by the village women by chewing up boiled yucca, and spitting the mix of chicha and saliva into a pot, where it ferments for two to four days. It is drunk throughout the day, and they offer it to visitors. While not technically required to drink, the women will take offense when visitors refuse it.

Be Prepared

A few things that visitors need to be sure to bring are:

  • Mosquito nets

  • Long sleeve shirts or mosquito spray

  • A headlamp or flashlight

  • Knee-high rainboots

  • Toilet paper

  • Soap

This was the basic meal. Boiled plantains and yucca on the left, and catfish on the right. The meal varies from day to day, but this is essentially what they give visitors.

Travelers should keep in mind that this is the Amazon jungle. It is not tame, and not necessarily safe. Bullet ants, venomous spiders and other potentially dangerous insects were nightly occurrences. There will be cockroaches, mosquitoes and termites. The weather will be extremely humid, preventing wet clothes from drying for days. Visiting here requires an adventurous and flexible attitude. Between the chicha, the weather, the culture shock, the varied English lessons, the bugs, and all the other factors, each day can be challenging for anyone not used to this sort of lifestyle.

While most tribes are happy to receive visitors, there are some individuals who are not so inviting. Connect with communities that are looking for your skillset before you set off. Check with locals or news sources to make sure that it is safe to go into the jungle beforehand. This should not be viewed as a quick trip to do some good. Helping teach English is a long term endeavor and should be given ample time to leave a lasting and positive impact. Devoting at least a month to this community would be most appreciated.

To contact the tribe and see about working with them, visit their workaway page.

September 24, 2017

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